When Herschelle Gibbs abandoned his car and fled on foot from a traffic cop, injuring himself in the process and jeopardising his place on an imminent Proteas tour, the story was covered up. It became a ‘training injury’.
Besides, we’d heard enough ‘Gibbs in trouble’ stories to last the rest of his career, if not a lifetime. But whereas Gibbs was a ‘loveable rogue’ and ‘endearing’, others have been less fortunate. Most notably the captain, Graeme Smith.
Whatever he did or said that rubbed people up the wrong way, he would cop the public’s flack. The captain, naturally, has fewer options to hide and escape than his players, but Smith was treated especially harshly in the early years given his tender age.
The irony of those early years is that his outer toughness was nothing more than a (admittedly very strong) plastic coating which he created to protect a sensitivity and vulnerability. Unlike other sporting captains and leaders of industry who have either a rare ability to compartmentalise their job from their life, or a psychopathic tendency not to care, Smith took criticism personally. It really hurt.
As a 20-something playing his heart out for his country and trying his best to fulfil the twin roles of national role model and on-field skipper, there were times when he was utterly confounded by the disdain and plain nastiness with which some people regarded his efforts. Many were the friends and family members who told him to give it up. It wasn’t worth it.
But two things made that impossible. Firstly, he cared far too much about the importance of the job and that it should be in the hands of somebody who would appreciate and cherish it. And secondly, if you haven’t noticed on the field by now, he’s a stubborn bugger, especially when the chips are down.
To think how he has become one of the most streetwise international cricketers of all time only makes his naivety of a decade ago seem all the more charming. Remember Minkie? There was unquestionably a strong mutual attraction between the two stars but the sportsman simply couldn’t understand how a photographer would always turn up at the quiet, romantic dinners he would organise. He would book under a false name and the only person who knew anything was her…
But my favourite story about Smith’s decade of test leadership concerns the one in a hundred which was not as leader of South Africa. It was an extraordinary decision by the ICC’s specially appointed selection panel to make a 25-year-old Smith captain of the World XI to play Australia in a six-day ‘Super test’ at the SCG in 2006. But what an honour, too, right? It was a nightmare, virtually from start to finish.
As Smith discussed field placings at the team meeting the night before, he told his team of luminaries that he would be at first slip. “But I field at first slip,” said Inzamam, slowly and with a touch of… menace?
“Well, I respect that,” said Smith, holding his ground. “But I’ll be fielding there tomorrow.” Inzi glared.
By the time the young captain had finished setting the field and talking to his opening bowler the following morning, he walked back to take up his position. The big man from Pakistan was standing there and showing no signs of moving. It was a challenge, alright.
Squeezing himself between the colossus and Mark Boucher, and trying not to smile, Smith crouched down and suggested that Inzi might like to give second slip a go.